Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory: Building a Business One Chip at a Time

Lupe Quetglas says that "sometimes simple is better," and that approach is clearly apparent throughout her business at the Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory. In the midst of an industrial complex on Ann Arbor’s south side, whole corn kernels are fed into an assembly line and emerge as finished tortilla chips just about 30 feet away. The corn is cooked, ground, rolled into basketball-sized spheres, flattened into rounds, cut, fried and seasoned all in a matter of minutes. Quetglas says she aims to keep her ingredient lists short and her products fresh, ideas that have defined her business since she started it in 2008. She and her sister Andrea had owned a translation business, Servicios Diversos, and they took notice when many of the Hispanics they served complained about the lack of home-style food in Ann Arbor.
"They were always saying, 'You have to go to Detroit to get fresh,'" says Quetglas, who is El Salvadoran. "So we thought we would bring it here."
Quetglas says she wasn't much of a cook herself at that point. So she and her sister traveled to Temascalcingo, Mexico in 2007 to learn the art of tortilla-making. Quetglas says the process seemed easy at first glance, but it proved much more challenging when she and her sister returned to Michigan to start their business. 
"We cook the corn and you have to be careful monitoring the temperature, summer to winter, or it doesn't work," she says. "The weather there is the same all year. Here it varies as much as a hundred degrees."
What's more, Quetglas says, rolling the large balls of dough (or masa) is "a workout."
"The first few months, we were crying until we finally figured it out," she says. "It was rough."
The company's sales totaled $87 its first year. But the business has grown swiftly since then, expanding to its current location in 2011 and adding a total of five different chip flavors (a new barbecue flavor will be added this summer). The factory now produces 80-100 cases of chips and three to four cases of tortillas per day. Chips are distributed to a variety of Michigan retail locations, while tortillas are distributed primarily to Ann Arbor restaurants, including Arbor Brewing Co., Black Pearl and Corner Brewery. Quetglas, who lives in Ann Arbor, says she's benefited from working in a town where the locals are just as particular about their food as she is. She sources GMO-free corn from Illinois and oil from Michigan, and she keeps the seasonings simple.
"Ann Arborites want everything fresh and they read all the ingredients," she says. "They will call and ask, 'Does this have peanuts in it? Does it have dairy in it?’ So it's good, because they kind of monitor us."
Quetglas seems enthusiastic about interacting with her customers in numerous ways, some more surprising than others. A 2011 Yelp review of the factory notes that Quetglas agreed to make a custom chip flavor as a special request for a customer's birthday. Quetglas still remembers the occasion.
"He wanted them really hot," she says. "So we made them spicy."
The factory also literally invites its customers in. Quetglas estimates that she hosts visitors to the facility twice a week, including occasional school groups. Ann Arborites have their own homegrown snack product, and Quetglas welcomes them to stop by to see how it's made. Professing simplicity and transparency, the factory has thrived off an open approach.
"Especially at the beginning, people would come by and say, 'Do you actually make them here?’" she says. "And we say, 'Yeah. Come in and see.'"

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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